Oakland A's New Stadium: Did Lew Wolff Ever Give Oakland Serious Consideration?
As we just passed the two-year mark since commissioner Bud Selig launched his "Blue-Ribbon" committee to determine if the Athletics would be granted permission to move to San Jose, I decided I wanted to look back at the failed attempts to stay in Oakland. It was during this search I ran across an interesting blog post on baseballoakland.com that made me aware of some interesting articles written by the San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury news that I had previously forgotten about.
The revelation of those articles and the quotes that were hidden within their writing tell an interesting story of the Athletics stadium quest and Lew Wolff's involvement, even before he owned the team.
Dating back to the 1990's the A's have sought a new stadium that would help them generate a revenue stream capable of competing with the "big-market" teams. The team has now seen two straight ownership groups that have acted disingenuously in their dealings with the city of Oakland, and have purposely deceived the very fan base they count on for support and to provide their revenue streams.
The Athletics' change of ownership from the Haas family to Steve Schott and Ken Hoffman began the frustration that has now spanned into its third different decade.
During the Schott-Hoffman era, A's fans were subjected to the yearly speculation that the team would move anywhere from Sacramento to Las Vegas. In fact it was Schott and Hoffman that first became interested with the idea of moving the team to San Jose.
Oakland fans became tired of the constant threat to move the team out of town and rejoiced when the team was sold to San Jose real estate developer Lew Wolff and San Francisco billionaire John Fischer. Wolfe had previously been appointed to help find viable ballpark options within the city of Oakland, and vowed that he would build a new stadium keeping the A's in Oakland.
Then Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente told the San Francisco Chronicle back in 2005 that he was optimistic Wolff would deliver on his promise to keep the A's in Oakland.
"He's a guy who wants to get things done, and he can get things done, " said De La Fuente at the time. "If Lew Wolff wants a new baseball stadium in Oakland, then it's going to happen. He's the guy to do it.''
I wonder if De La Fuente still feels Wolff is the guy to get it done? Or, I wonder if De La Fuente, like many diehard Oakland A's fans, believes that Wolff's interest in Oakland was really all for show, all along?
We of course know that the city of Oakland feels the A's acted disingenuously in their prior dealings with the city, and new mayor Jean Quan does not believe Wolff is giving enough consideration to Oakland's most recent attempts at finding a suitable stadium site.
Was Wolff ever truly committed to building a ballpark in Oakland though?
Seven years before Lew Wolff would become a majority owner of the Oakland Athletics, he outlined how he would move the Athletics to San Jose if he were the owner instead of Steve Schott and Ken Hoffman.
In 1998, Lew Wolff provided San Francisco Chronicle writer Steve Kettman with his thoughts on the A's ballpark pursuit.
"If I was going to pursue a ballpark, I would certainly do it in San Jose, not depend on a vote outside of San Jose, and I would work through the mayor and the Redevelopment Agency,'' said Wolff. "It's the difference between a big-league city and a non-big-league city. I wouldn't spend five minutes on any other city besides San Jose."
Thirteen years have passed since Wolff made that statement. His statement to the Chronicle wound up being the exact path that he pursued.
Fast-forward back to 2005 when Wolff took ownership of the A's, former Sunnyvale mayor Larry Stone, a key figure in trying to lure the A's to San Jose, shared his thoughts on Wolff's public pledge to keep the A's in Oakland.
Stone says that Wolfe could "say, 'I tried, I have to look elsewhere. We hope and believe that one of the places, if not the only place, is San Jose.' ''
A year later in 2006, Wolff abandoned hope of building a stadium in Oakland and turned his sights to Fremont. Or did he?
Mark Purdy of the San Jose Mercury News outlined his belief of Wolff's true intentions with the city of Fremont deal.
Purdy details a plan in which the Athletics ownership would pursue a move south to Fremont, the furthest city south before entering into Santa Clara County, and thus into the territorial rights of the San Francisco Giants. He would name the team the San Jose Athletics of Fremont, and draw on the South Bay corporate revenue stream without owing the Giants a penny of compensation. Then at the last minute, Wolff can go to the Giants ownership group and drop the hammer.
"Look, if I go to Fremont and call the team the San Jose A's, the Giants get nothing. But if you agree to let me actually move the team to San Jose, you'll get some compensation. How about it?" Purdy theorized.
Interestingly enough, when Wolff was asked about Purdy's theory, he refused to rule any of it out.
Wolff then secured a financial pledge from Cisco Systems for 30-year naming rights to the A's new stadium. What better financial partner than Cisco if you are going to drive home Purdy's theory to the San Francisco Giants (allegedly)?
Do I truly believe the whole Fremont plan was a sham? I can't say for certain, but its failure also worked in Wolff's favor making a believable case out of Wolff's claim that only in San Jose was a new ballpark possible.
Do you believe Wolff ever gave Oakland serious consideration?
Since Wolff took ownership of the A's he hasn't done exactly what he said he would back in 1998. He did spend ample time on Fremont before turning to San Jose, but he has made Larry Stone and Mark Purdy look prophetic. In the end, his sites focused on San Jose though, validating his 1998 proclamation that San Jose was the only city he would find suitable if he were the owner of the A's.
While Wolff and San Jose have waited for Major League Baseball to issue their findings, the city of Oakland has put together a viable proposal for a ballpark near Jack London Square at a site named Victory Court.
The Victory Court location does not offer the same proximity to corporate finance as San Jose, but beside that there is little downside to the proposal. The proposed Jack London location would offer some of the most scenic backgrounds in baseball with views of the Oakland estuary, the hills, and the Port of Oakland cranes in the distance. The nighttime skyline would be lit up with downtown Oakland highlighted by the Tribune building all visible from the stands.
A collection of restaurants, bars and coffee shops are within walking distance of the proposed site thanks to a renaissance in the downtown Oakland area. BART, Amtrak, 880 and 980 (connecting to 580) are all in close proximity, as well as the San Francisco ferry for those cross-bay fans that prefer the American League style of baseball.
While Wolff has publicly claimed over and over (and over) that he has exhausted all options in Oakland, you have to wonder why he is so opposed to this plan at the very least as a suitable backup to the San Jose proposal?
After a long career in real estate development, Wolff has to be aware of the legal nightmare the city of Oakland could put the Athletics through with lawsuits designed to keep the A's in Oakland by delaying their departure out of town. With new Governor Jerry Brown's proposal to end redevelopment money, Oakland has a powerful bullet they have yet to fire which could essentially kill any San Jose plans.
Oakland has not needed to use their final weapon yet as Major League Baseball could very well decide they will not revoke the Giants territorial rights to San Jose.
This possible scenario is exactly what makes me wonder why Wolff would remain so adamant that Oakland is not a possibility?
Could there possibly be a hidden motive that we have yet to have presented to us?
In 2005 when Wolff took over the team and speculation first arose that Wolff's real estate history in San Jose could lead to an eventual move to San Jose, Neil deMause of fieldofschemes.com offered up this theory:
"MLB commissioner Bud Selig would no doubt be happy to see Wolff use the threat of a move to bludgeon Oakland into building a new stadium."
Add deMause's theory to those of Purdy and Stone, and we could wind up with the eventual end result of this saga if the Giants' San Jose rights are upheld and the A's are forced to stay in Oakland.
Where should the A's build their new stadium?
Delving just slightly further into the conspiracy theory department, let's revisit 1998 and some thoughts from Oakland's most recent Hall of Fame inductee, Rickey Henderson:
"Oakland can support a big-league team, but it's a city where if you want support, you have to spend the money and get good players,'' Henderson said at the time.
"If you're not putting a good team out there, you can't expect people to come out. There's so many other things to do. The Haas family put more into the community. That's why they had the support of the community.''
Henderson made these statements long before Wolff was even considered to be in the running for the A's ownership. His thoughts echo the opinions of many die-hard A's fans though, put a winner on the field, and the fans will be there.
The A's have in fact put together a team of "good players" this season, and with the end of redevelopment looming and no answer from MLB, perhaps the A's ownership is quietly beginning to embrace the idea of staying in Oakland. Placing a winning team on the field could be the beginning of making amends with the fans they have angered the past five years.
Hmm, perhaps there was more to Lew Wolff's playbook than Larry Stone and Mark Purdy foresaw.
Then again, probably not.
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